Back to 8/96 Features: Living Color
Up to Table of Contents
Ahead to 8/96 Features: Colorful Choices

8/96 Features: Colorful Choices

Colorful Choices -- We've flipped printers' lids to show you how bright they've become.

By Hailey Lynne McKeefry

Perk up your presentations. Light up your letters. Rejuvenate your reports. Break your budget? Not anymore. With today's affordable new laser and ink jet technologies, even the most budget-conscious businesses can produce bright and brilliant reports, documents and presentations.

The biggest factor in output quality, be it ink jet or laser, is not the resolution (expressed in dots per inch), but how well the printer places small dots of color on paper. Although higher resolutions may produce a clearer image, the size, shape and placement of dots also drastically affect your output. Small dots that don't properly overlap create jagged, washed-out images, while large dots may swallow up fine details. The best shape for a color dot is perfectly round. Look for printed images with sharply defined colors and details.

A printer must also position dots correctly on a page's grid. A 300x300dpi printer, for instance, assumes a grid 300 dots wide and 300 long. If the printer doesn't space the dots properly, edges will appear jagged, colors uneven, and images rough and grainy.

Some printers now use variable dot technology. This enables the printer to change ink dot size depending on whether the document is a photo, a bitmap or text. A photo, for instance, would require smaller dots.

Although dot quality and placement issues are the same for both ink jet and laser printers, each technology has its own advantages and challenges.

Ink jets put price first

Ink jet is the first color printing technology most business users turn to, mainly because it's affordable, with prices starting at $179. The colors are bright and the resolutions are fairly high (up to 720x720dpi). The technology's biggest drawbacks are slow print speeds and a lack of permanence. Depending on resolution, image size and paper size, print speeds can range anywhere from 1 page per minute to close to an hour per page. Average speeds are two to three minutes per page.

Ink jets spray ink from a print head onto paper. Ink's three most important properties are surface tension, viscosity and pH. Surface tension and viscosity refer to the rate at which the print head refills with ink after firing, which affects print speeds. All three factors also determine the ink droplets' diameter and drying time, which affect image quality.

An ink's pH refers to the solubility of its ingredients. Most inks are water soluble-or dye based-for better absorption into the paper. To make a color, ink jet printers place precise amounts of each toner color (cyan, magenta and yellow) on top of one another to produce a single, solid color. The biggest challenge is to create inks that dry quickly enough for dots to be placed close together or one on top of the other. (If you want blacker blacks, by the way, choose a device with a separate black ink cartridge. Some ink jets use a combination of cyan, magenta and yellow, which can result in muddy-looking blacks.)

Dye-based color inks aren't waterproof, though. The difficulty lies in color mixing-waterproof inks don't mix properly. Lexmark recently began shipping the Inkjet 2050, which features a new waterproof black ink, but no company has yet come up with waterproof color inks. For now, the only way to avoid smudging is to choose a high-quality paper, which holds the ink better.

The next challenge is finding the best way to get the ink on paper. Most printers use thermal technology (heat) to dry the ink. This helps prevent smudging, but it may also create elliptical dots. It can also cause overspray, meaning the dots break up or have trailing tails like a comet's. Epson's solution is its piezoelectric technology, which uses pressure to create perfectly round dots for smoother lines and fills.

Solid-ink technology may bridge the gap between ink jet and color laser. As its name implies, solid-ink technology melts solid blocks of ink and adheres the ink to the media. Tektronix has entered this category with its Phaser 340. This machine prints up to 4 pages per minute at 600x300dpi and retails for $4,995.

It's laser for quality

Color laser still offers the best-looking, longest-lasting output. Many units can print at 1200x1200dpi. But even though prices have dropped by half in the past 18 months, the price tag for this technology is still steep: typically $5,000 to $10,000. And the cash outlay doesn't end there. The average printer has a developer cartridge, four toner cartridges, a toner collection bin and a bottle of oil (to increase the sheen of printed images). Until manufacturers make monocomponent toners that combine developer and toner in a single cartridge, you'll have to replace each of these components individually, a time-consuming chore.

Because of their high price tag, most color lasers reside on a network, and must meet high-volume demands. Look for color laser printers that print single-color pages as fast as their monochrome cousins. Today's color lasers can print monochrome pages about as quickly as a small workgroup printer-about 12 to 15 pages per minute.

Unfortunately, color-page print speeds usually don't exceed 6ppm. That's because a separate toner cartridge must apply each color, so the print head has to pass over the page four times to print one full-color page.

Data processing speeds can also adversely affect print speeds. Because these printers have their own processors, they don't rely on the host PC to process information. Huge amounts of data must pass between the host computer and the printer, either over a network or a parallel connection. The more colors in a job, the more information must pass. A full-color page may have 16 times more information than a monochrome page.

To speed things up, color laser printers use software and hardware to compress and decompress files. Vendors have increased compression ratios dramatically, from about 1:1 a year ago to about 8:1 today. Higher ratios also let you print large files with less RAM, a printer's largest cost component.

Electronics for Imaging, maker of the Fiery XJ embedded print controller, is addressing this issue. The controller works with the print engine to enhance print speeds and bring print quality closer to continuous tone. This technology fools the eye into seeing 16 million colors rather than a pattern of dots, making an image look more like a real photograph. Both Canon and Digital are using the controller in their printers.

Great color quality isn't the only factor to consider when you're laying out four figures for a printer. Look for networkability and sophisticated software utilities. Network cards, usually Ethernet, are now either standard or optional plug-ins.

Current software offerings enable you to control a variety of printing issues. The Fiery XJ ships with a utility that allows you to view jobs waiting in a print queue, so you can reprioritize them, manipulate a document's color or brightness, or change the number of copies.

Tektronix's Phaser 550 ships with PhaserLink software, which links your printer to the World Wide Web or to private corporate intranet sites for online help, technical support and documentation. This solves the problem of 10 users and only one set of documentation.

The race for the perfect color printer continues, so look forward to even faster, cheaper and better color output for the office environment.

Hailey Lynne McKeefry is a Richmond Hill, N.Y.-based freelance writer.

Back to 8/96 Features: Living Color
Up to Table of Contents
Ahead to 8/96 Features: Colorful Choices